Alternative approach to education |

Alternative approach to education

Teacher provides different classroom atmosphere to South Routt students

Susan Cunningham

Don Williams, 46, was always the shortest kid in high school.

At 5-foot-3, he looked up to most of his peers.

His first year in college, he sprouted up another 6 inches, but it wasn’t enough to make him forget what it felt like to pull out a driver’s license to prove he was a teenager, or to talk fast to convince people he was older than he looked.

“I think it helped me to realize how other people can feel put down,” Williams said.

It also made him sympathetic to people’s problems, setting him up for a lifelong career of working with and inspiring children and teenagers.

“There really is a need for reaching some of the youth that are dropping out of high school and looking at dead-end lives,” Williams said.

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A year and a half ago, Williams started the Routt County Alternative School in Oak Creek. The school caters to students who have not succeeded in high school and need a different atmosphere to do their best, as well as to students who have succeeded in school but want to try something different.

Starting an alternative school has been Williams’ dream for at least 20 years. He moved to Oak Creek four years ago to work as a day-treatment teacher at area schools, then acted on the murmurings that there was interest in an alternative school.

In two years — and with help from school officials, counselors and others — the alternative school was up and running.

At the school, students choose their own curriculum and are guided through it by Williams. They have to meet state standards for their age and also have to put in 60 hours of study and present five portfolio pieces for each class.

Williams grew up in Minnesota and studied psychology in college, later receiving a teaching certificate and a master’s degree in special education. He first worked at a treatment center in St. Paul, Minn., then moved on to a residential center for emotionally disturbed boys.

His 18-year stay at the residential center was broken up several times, first for two eight-month periods during which he helped an autistic teenager.

The teenager was out of control and causing problems in the neighborhood, so Williams was asked to work with him one on one. The pair started riding a tandem bike and training for the Special Olympics, and the teen’s behavior improved.

“I really like watching other people improve at things,” Williams said. “Even if they start at a low level, I get very excited watching them improve.”

The teen won two events at the state and regional Special Olympics competition, an accomplishment Williams said made him as proud as he would feel if an average student had become president of the United States.

The best way to teach youths with learning disabilities or other struggles is to focus on their successes and show them that they won’t always fail, Williams said.

“It’s kind of magical when a student decides to take responsibility for their life and themselves,” Williams said. “It’s like a light goes on, and you see a 180-degree turn.”

Williams’ rules at the alternative school require all of the students’ works to be positive, respectful and demonstrate growth. Students play a part in making rules and coming up with disciplinary actions, so they feel ownership and pride in the school, he said. Williams and other adults have to follow the same rules.

Students learn about a range of topics, taking time for sports and music, too.

Music is a big part in Williams’ life, as he has played piano since he was a child, entering serious competitions by age 17 and studying at the University of Colorado at Boulder music school on a full scholarship.

“That’s when I also realized music was something I needed for my spiritual well-being,” Williams said.

Today, he’s the music director at the Yampa Bible Church; he organizes concerts for his students; he sings, acts and directs music for local performances; and he plays and composes music on his own. In his Oak Creek home, Williams has a studio complete with several keyboards, a mixing board, amplifiers and a drum set.

He is working on a project to make tracks of classical piano songs, such as Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” and Bach’s “Prelude in C minor,” played to a rock-tempo drum beat. The tracks could be used at exercise studios across the nation.

On his time off, he enjoys skiing, biking and playing tennis. Since he and his wife of 10 years recently divorced, Williams also spends time visiting his teenage daughter.

He hopes to find a larger space in Oak Creek for the alternative school, opening it to more than the 10 students it can accommodate. He’d like to see it grow enough to add a second teacher. He also hopes that South Routt will build a teen center in the next year or two, followed by a community recreation center.

For the teens who feel hopeless or that their lives are not going anywhere, Williams’ message is good to remember:

“People have far more power in their lives than they realize, and our daily choices make a huge difference in our futures.”